UConn BioBlitz: the figures

The most important outcome of last week’s BioBlitz was, no doubt, the great interaction among all the participants: experts, volunteers and general public. We know there were a lot of opportunities to learn and be amazed about the biodiversity that surround us.

However, the particular piece of information that condenses the result of a BioBlitz is, of course, the final species tally. All the experts did a great job exploring the area and identifying specimens, and we are very proud to report that 1181 different species could be spotted during the event.

For many people, perhaps the first surprise is that the organisms that we find more familiar (vertebrates) typically show a modest number.  For example, up to 6 different species of fish were captured and identified in the Fenton and Willimantic rivers, plus 14 amphibians and 6 reptiles. The mammal team, that even prepared traps for small rodents and monitored the presence of bats, identified 24 species, and finally, the birdwatchers were quite busy and spotted 80 different birds.

Most of the animal species described by biologists are insects, so, it is not surprising that their figure in the BioBlitz is higher, although they are often really tough to ID to the species level. We had different groups of entomologists working on different insect lineages: Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Coleoptera (beetles), Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and even ants. They sampled the campus area with nets or setting up light traps and came up with 222 species! Other participants working in non-insects invertebrates (spiders, mollusks,…) reported 89 by the end of the event.
Bioblitz fungiWe had a large and active mycological community participating in the BioBlitz. They explored comprehensively different areas around campus (such as the Moss Sanctuary or the riverine of the Fenton River) and collected all kinds of fungi: mushrooms, lichens and even microscopic fungi that cause diseases in plants. Their final species count was quite high: 147.

 

We have insisted in the past: no matter how small species are, they all count in a BioBlitz. Some of our experts work on microscopic organisms, such as algae. During the event they sampled water from ponds around campus and screened these tiny worlds that exist in a single drop of water looking for minute creatures adding 91 species to the tally. Finally, the tireless botanists’ contribution after 24 hours exploring Storrs campus was a formidable 502 species (including mosses, ferns, conifers and flowering plants).

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But we are not done yet! Some days before the BioBlitz, a small microbiome environmental analysis was done to some soil and roots samples in the Hillside Environmental Education Park. The preliminary results showed that more than 7,000 species of bacteria and other prokaryotes were present in those samples. This was a great reminder to help us put into perspective the biodiversity we see: no matter how large the final tally of a BioBlitz is (limited to a 24-hour period), the actual figure of living organisms that surround us is just inconceivably huge.

Download the list of organisms found: UConn BioBlitz Taxa

Just how many species will we find this Bioblitz?

There was a great response to our last quiz (at the time of this post >100) with 38% of the respondents thinking we will see greater than 2000 species!

We really do hope we can meet that goal. Previous BioBlitzes in the area have set the target high (the 2001 Danbury BioBlitz has the record with 2,519! with a close second in 2007 in Middletown of 2,231.)

Feel free to add your voice to the quiz, it is still going… do you think we can join these 2 BioBlitzes in breaking the 2000 mark?

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Meet the experts

Species identification (the key activity in any BioBlitz) can be a complicated task, and it has many faces, almost as numerous as biodiversity itself. Each group of organisms (butterflies, trees, birds, spiders, fungi,…) has its own techniques for scientific observation, collection and identification. A BioBlitz is a unique opportunity to see how experts on different groups work at the same time and how they apply their knowledge and expertise.

There are some organisms such as trees or birds that can be identified directly in the field. If you join a birdwatching walk you will be able to learn from an ornithologist how to distinguish the birds of the area, visiting certain places at the right hour of the day, just with the help of some binoculars or even with your ears, listening to their songs. This does not mean that birdwatching will not be a challenge: in order to maximize the number of species spotted it is necessary to know their habits, their songs and how they look like.

Other species that are shyer or inaccessible will need to be captured for a proper identification. This is the case of the small mammals or many insects. Traps will be set up for some of these animals (many with nocturnal habits) and visited regularly to check what is living in the area. Again, some species can be identified in the field and will be released immediately, although you will have the rare opportunity to see how they look like close-up if you are around.

Insect Trap

 

However, there are many groups of organisms that are really difficult to identify in the field, perhaps because they are very diverse (consider that there are hundreds of species of herbs and thousands of insects in Connecticut) or because they are tiny (such as microscopic invertebrates, or algae). In those cases, the collection in the field is only the first step, followed by the identification in a laboratory, usually equipped with instruments such as microscopes and access to the bibliography that the taxonomists need to reach the right species identification.

White Memorial BioBlitz (297) White Memorial BioBlitz (233)

Identifying species

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you come to Storrs on June 24th or 25th, make sure you drop by the laboratories in Torrey Life Sciences building. You will see entomologists dissecting the genitalia of insects (often the only way to tell apart some tricky species), botanists examining tiny details of the flowers and phycologists surveying the amazing algae diversity that can exist in a single drop of water. Every single species, big or small, counts.

In summary: light trap for insects, acoustic monitoring of bats, bird song identification, surveys of the microscopic life in the water of ponds and streams, nets to capture fishes, pressing of plant specimens,… is there any common trait in all this abundance of techniques? Although they may seem very different, they all need something: expertise. The taxonomists and naturalists leading the species identification in the BioBlitz have gained these specialized skills after many years or even decades of work and dedication. They will be there making possible for you not only to see how they work, but also to answer your questions about their organisms of interest and their activity.

Beyond Pond Scum — Algal diversity around Storrs

All the different organisms we call “algae” pretty much span the entire tree of life, as they belong to several evolutionary lineages only distantly related to each other. The BioBlitz will provide opportunities for you to get closely acquainted with cyanobacteria, dinoflagellates, diatoms, euglenoids, chlorophytes, and others. Never heard of those? Chances are, they live right in your back yard.

For the most part, you need a microscope to discern the hundreds of species of freshwater algae occurring in New England. But there are exceptions, and they are not that hard to find once you know what to look for. For example stoneworts, or members of the green algal order Charales, are commonly mistaken for aquatic vascular plants, which they superficially resemble. Upon closer observation, however, it becomes apparent that they are not anatomically complex like “higher” plants and are instead made up of few-celled branched filaments. Two genera are currently known to occur around Storrs: Chara and Nitella. The invasive Nitellopsis obtusa (starry stonewort) is not yet known from Connecticut, but it is a major nuisance in the Midwest and definitely a species to be on the lookout for1.

Chara_zeylanica
Chara zeylanica
Nitella
Nitella flexilis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another green alga that is easily identified without a microscope does not look green at all. Thanks to their UV-protective carotenoid pigments, members of the genus Trentepohlia take on a red, orange, or yellow coloration. Moreover, they do not live in water! Instead, they inhabit tree bark (some species also grow on rocks or man-made walls) and can cover it in conspicuous reddish films that appear fuzzy upon closer examination. Around Storrs, Trentepohlia is most common on oaks and pines.

trentepohlia
Trentepohlia

While cooling off in a stream or pond, with a fair amount of luck you might find macroscopic red algae (Rhodophyta) growing attached to rocks. Confusingly, these algae will probably look green or brownish on the outside. The soft, slimy, finely branched Batrachospermum can be found in streams or at the edge of ponds. Its somewhat elusive relative, the also branched but more robust, cartilaginous Tuomeya (photo below by Ellen Woods) grows in fast flowing streams such as the Fenton River. On rocks under dams like the Eagleville Dam you can often easily spot abundantly growing Lemanea, a rough, knobby rhodophyte belonging to the same order, Batrachospermales.

 

tuomeya
Tuomeya
lemanea
Lemanea
 Batrachospermum
Batrachospermum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you browse herbarium records of these macroalgae, you will likely notice a significant decrease in specimen numbers over time: most records are decades old, and many are older than a century. Despite this trend, these algae might not be all that rare, but simply aren’t being collected and reported as much now. On the other hand, given the ongoing man-induced habitat and climate changes, some of these species might indeed be declining. Thus, recording their occurrence during the UConn BioBlitz will be an important contribution to our knowledge of their current distribution in Connecticut.

 

1Sleith, R.S., Havens, A.J., Stewart, R.A. & Karol, K.G. (2015). Distribution of Nitellopsis obtusa (Characeae) in New York, U.S.A. Brittonia, 67, 166-172.

Barrows Inaugural BioBlitz

Last Wednesday, the Charles H. Barrows STEM academy in North Windham, CT threw its inaugural BioBlitz, and it was an resounding success. For one entire school day, four hundred K-7 students scoured their beautiful new campus with the goal of enumerating its biodiversity for the first time.

Organized and driven by resident technology teacher Jan Tomanelli and others, the BioBlitz saw groups of fifteen students rotating through seven sites, ranging an impressive habitat diversity from courtyard garden to reedy wetland, all surrounded by a remarkably pristine deciduous forest.

Peepers and tree frogs, kingbirds and kestrel. Wolf spiders, chestnuts, and pink lady’s slippers. All totalled, the students identified an impressive 168 species of plants, animals, and fungi, and that is surely an underestimate. Next year, when the students are armed with homemade field guides and the experience of this years Blitz, species counts are certain to skyrocket.

colias

A clouded sulphur.

But for many of us who attended to lend our expert skills, observing biodiversity at the academy was only a tasty side dish. The main course was without question interacting with these incredible youth, all of whom displayed more than enough enthusiasm and excitement to make our eyes a little teary.

Giddy to unearth new critters, proud to report their findings, and anxious to hold (or at least poke) whatever it might be, the spirit of discovery was very much alive among the Barrows students. And to my refreshment, youthful aspiration broke from old stereotypes:

“When you grow up, do you want to be a scientist?” one gregarious young woman asked me, aged perhaps eight or nine. Excited, she continued before I could answer,

“What do you call scientists who like stars?” Again, she wasted no time waiting for me,

Astronomers! That’s what they’re called. I really like the stars, you see. I want to be an astronomer.”

“Do you like the planets, too?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “I don’t like the planets. Just the stars”

Equally charming and even more invigorating was the post-Blitz assembly. Call-and-response got the blood pumping, and all four hundred students performed a BioBlitz dance to electronic music of their own creation.

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All 400 students, after the Blitz.

The whole experience was thoroughly fulfilling and encouraging on so many levels, not the least of which was to boost excitement for the upcoming BioBlitz this summer at Storrs.

The UConn BioBlitz will draw dozens of expert naturalists whose knowledge is literally unparalleled, and offer youth and families the opportunity to learn about nature and science. It will inspire new generations to appreciate biodiversity, to show concern for its threat, and to learn how to get involved in creating knowledge and protecting the environment.

If the UConn BioBlitz goes half as well as the Barrows Blitz, it will be a huge success. Don’t miss it!

Technology revealing biodiversity in the night sky

On a summer evening, step out onto your porch or sit by a lake and stare upward. You will probably notice little bats fluttering about in the night sky. But, how many species are there and what are they doing?

When I tell folks that I study bats, many recount fond memories of seeing a number of bats in their backyards foraging for insects on summer evenings. These often-misunderstood animals are extremely beneficial to forests and agricultural systems in North America, as they consume large quantities of insect pests. A colony of big brown bats can consume about 600,000 cucumber beetles, 194,000 June beetles, 158,000 leafhoppers, and 335,000 stinkbugs per year! 1 Today, many backyard bat watchers have noticed a decrease in the number of their bat visitors. Indeed, a number of North American bat species are facing severe declines due to an invasive exotic fungal species that causes White-nose Syndrome.2 Now more than ever, monitoring of bat populations is needed by wildlife biologists and the public.

During the UConn BioBlitz, we will survey bats using acoustic monitoring devices. This technology has been used by wildlife biologists for decades to record and analyze bat echolocation calls, which can tell us what species are present, their activity patterns within a particular habitat, and characteristics of their foraging behavior.

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IMG_0001big brown bat

 

Here, the spectrogram images produced by an acoustic monitoring system depict the frequency of bat calls in real time. This signal is unique to the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), one of the most common bat species found in Connecticut. This particular individual was recorded foraging along Horsebarn Hill Road on the UConn Storrs campus. Indeed, the BioBlitz bat surveys will allow us to determine the presence of other Connecticut species, providing important baseline data of bats in general on the UConn campus as well as of particular bats that are severely affected by White-nose Syndrome.

Today, bat acoustic monitoring technology has advanced so much that virtually anyone can monitor bats in their own backyard! The specific monitoring system that will be used during the BioBlitz will let us record, view, and listen to bat echolocation calls in real time as well as automatically identify calls to species in the field. This monitoring system is not only very powerful for research purposes, but is also a fantastic educational tool. During the UConn BioBlitz, we will hold a workshop demonstrating how educators can incorporate this user-friendly technology into classroom activities to introduce students to the fascinating world of bats.

 

1 Kunz, T.H., Braun de Torrez, E., Bauer, D., Lobova, T. & Fleming, T.H. (2011) Ecosystem services provided by bats. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1223, 1–38.

2 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2014) The devastating disease of hibernating bats in North America. Available at: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/sites/default/files/resource/white-nose_fact_sheet_6-2014_1.pdf.

What is a Bioblitz?

We have had over 100 replies already on our quiz regarding participation in and knowledge of Bioblitz’s! It turns out that not a lot of people have heard about Bioblitz’s before going to our website (48% of people surveyed at the time of this post).

In short, a Bioblitz is a coordinated effort to try and survey all of the species that can be found in a particular area, over a predefined period of time (usually 24 hours). We hope that you can make use of the links and the video on the front page to find out more details about Bioblitz’s and to answer any questions you may have. Also feel free to contact us if you want to find out more before getting involved, we are happy to talk about Bioblitz’s.

The quiz is still live, feel free to add your story. Then check out our new quiz that asks just how many species you think we will find!?

Also, remember to sign-up to participate or volunteer in the great events that will be happening over the 24 hour period from July 24th-25th.

 

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The first ever BioBlitz on a UConn Campus!

We are excited to announce that we are organizing the first ever BioBlitz on a UConn campus. There is such great biodiversity right here, why go anywhere else?  We are planning to make this an engaging event for researchers and the public alike.

We are pleased to announce Joshua’s Trust, The Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology as our sponsors for the event! Their generosity and community mindedness is a great addition to the event. Read more about them and find links to their websites here.

Along with the classic workshops and nature walks we are trying something new with this Bioblitz. We are holding a Science Exposé.  Making use of the Hillside Environmental Education Park (HEEP), we hope to lead hypothesis driven research and anyone can join in.

So many great events will be happening, bookmark this website and check back often as we will be updating regularly.

2015 UConn Bioblitz Executive Committee